In no more than 20 words… (Mastering the 10-second pitch)

Succinctness is a skill I’ve worked hard to hone over the last, oh, thirty years or so of my life.

I’ve told a number of people that I’ve written a novel. When I was still working on it, I already told quite a few people. After all, NaNoWriMo suggests doing so to make yourself accountable to others.

But whenever you tell someone that you’re writing a novel/story/poem/whatever, they inevitably ask something along the lines of, “What’s it about?”

I used to dread that question.

Over the past few years, I’ve figured out how to limit my response to a single sentence. It was definitely not easy; I tend to be a rather verbose person. But it’s been a good exercise for me! And the amazing thing is that I’ve discovered when I give them a single sentence, they are usually interested enough in the concept to ask questions about what happens next.

And if they aren’t, I haven’t wasted a whole lot of anyone’s time.

I was at our regional TGIO party this past Sunday night, and one of the guys there asked me what my novel was about. I very nearly started with the long, drawn-out explanation of how my characters are sophomores in high school, blah blah blah, but then I stopped myself and asked, “In no more than twenty words?” The people at the table just kind of laughed because, well, it’s hard to summarize a 50,000-plus-word work in just 20 words. I mean, that’s 0.04% of what I’d written!

And yet, if I’m eventually going to send query letters out to find an agent, that’s exactly what I’ll need to do. Moreover, I’ll have to piece together an extremely concise synopsis to prove that I actually have a story.

My 2012 NaNoWriMo novel, Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up?, has a simple premise: A modern Snow White runs off with Prince Charming, only to find he’s not so charming, after all. (And it’s only 18 words.)

Is it an interesting premise? I think so. I thought it was an interesting enough concept to write about it. And quite a few people who have heard my 20-words-or-fewer pitch have had their interests piqued enough to ask for more details.

But here’s my secret: I’m making a concerted effort to only start work on a project after I get the concept whittled down to those 20-or-fewer words. And my favorite two words to get down to those 20 words?

What if.

To illustrate, I took the liberty of making my own “what-ifs”, based on novels I love:

  • What if an awkward telekinetic girl is named Prom Queen as the result of a vicious prank?
  • What if an orphaned boy discovers he’s a wizard and must defeat the wizard who killed his parents?
  • What if a girl falls in love with a boy from a rival family?
  • What if former friends have to work together to solve a mystery and keep their childhood secrets hidden?
  • What if a girl from a clandestine spy school gets noticed by an ordinary boy who can’t know her secret?

This takes the basic premise, whittles it down to a single question, and makes it easy to explain to someone who may be just asking politely. Plus it also strips the story to its bare bones and gives you the roughest, most basic framework on which to build the rest of your story. Oh, sure – Carrie is so much more than that simple statement. And Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is way more complex than what I jotted down. Romeo and Juliet has many more complexities, Pretty Little Liars has a lot more going on, and I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You is much more layered.

But I think you get my drift.

Don’t believe you can do it with your own work? Try it. You may end up with a 25-word response or may need 30 words, but my rule is that if you have to take a breath while you’re explaining it, it’s too long.

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